In Vietnam, the beginning of spring is marked by a very large festival called the Tet Festival where the symbol of the Lunar New Year and spring awakening is the arrival of the blooming kumquat and peach trees. Unfortunately, I missed this festival by just a week or so before arriving in Hanoi. While I missed the actual Tet festival, the festivities do not stop that soon: every year for one or two months after Tet, Buddhist pilgrims (85% of the population of Vietnam identifies their religious beliefs as Buddhist, whether they practice often or not) flock to the Perfume Pagoda, aka Chùa Hương in Vietnamese.
My guide book says that the Perfume Pagoda—which is 60 km south west of Hanoi in picturesque limestone mountains and is actually a large cave—is one of the prime places to visit in the Hanoi area, but warns about visiting it for two months after Tet due to the crowds. I must say, the warning was completely justified! Nonetheless, this was a cultural experience I am glad I partook in.
Prior to my trip to the Perfume Pagoda, my co-workers at the MFI SEDA/Binh Minh asked me for 70,000 VND which is roughly $4. I was unsure why they wanted this money, maybe it was for lunch for the week? I soon found out that they actually wanted me to join them on their annual pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda to pray for wealth, health, and prosperity for the new lunar year. We left on a Sunday at 5 AM, for a long but incredible day.
After a sleepless 1.5 hour bus ride to the town of My Doc, we finally arrived at the river that would take us to the foot of the mountains. The town was crawling with people and vendors of cheap trinkets and stacks of small denomination bills which are both used as offerings at the various temples, altars, and pagodas. I could sense the urgency and the excitement in my co-workers who were non-stop chattering in Vietnamese. As I looked around the town upon arrival I was overwhelmed by the mass of people yet I could not help but feel slightly lonely because of the language barrier. Nonetheless the staff at SEDA/Binh Minh did everything they could once we were on the river to explain to me what the day would be like and the purpose of the festivities.
To get the festivities started we purchased a whole cooked chicken, plopped him/her on a pile of sticky rice, stuck stacks of money under it and added a few flowers. We then marched the chicken and a platter of fruit into the first temple and put it on the altar with incense burning everywhere. Everyone, by this point, was praying for wealth, health and prosperity in general. I assumed this was an offering but as quickly as it began the chicken and fruit platters were back out the door of the temple. Apparently they were lunch for the boat ride ahead…
The boat ride lasted about one hour and I was placed squarely in the middle, probably so I wouldn’t fall into the water. The boat was rowed by a small but buff woman who steered the row boat with professional poise, which in my opinion was incredible! We had at least 16 people in our boat and she propelled us through the water without a hint of being tired and with extreme ease. Apparently most of the women in the town of My Doc, aged 13 to about 65, row the throngs of pilgrims up the river every year, all year long. Not a single obese one amongst them.
The scenery on the river was literally awe inspiring. Too bad it was cloudy, because I bet with a blue sky and a blazing sun the limestone and lush green mountains would be even more phenomenal. Despite the clouds it was still pretty. As our boat made its way amongst the other boats the staff of SEDA/Binh Minh broke out into traditional Vietnamese songs until we made it to the docking point where the hike up the mountain would begin.
The hike up to the Perfume Pagoda is several kilometers and quite steep. It doesn’t make it easy that the stone-paved path has been trekked on so many times that the rocks have been burnished smooth and thus are insanely slippery; I lost my footing too many times to count. Unfortunately, all along the path the view was blocked by more vendors and food and drink stalls (which were actually quite necessary due to the heat). I would have liked to have seen the view, but it makes sense for the vendors to be there: with the thousands upon thousands of people walking by it’s a small entrepreneurs dream to have such easy access to a market like this one! I would not be surprised if some of the stall owners had micro-finance loans of their own, from Kiva or any other organization.
With roughly 1/3 of a mile to the cave, our ability to walk normally stopped. Suddenly I was at a rock concert back home: we were in a mosh pit. The throngs of pilgrims had finally all converged on one narrow path to the pagoda with intense pushing and shoving. I swear, at one point my feet were no longer on the ground and my body movement was only because of the sway of the crowd! Fortunately for me, I was a head taller than everybody so I was able to get fresh air, while everyone else must have been suffocating. Being a head taller was also useful for the staff of SEDA/Binh Minh to keep track of me and each other as I was a very visible landmark amongst the sea of people. In fact I was called a ‘hero’ by them since I was able to make my way through everyone easier and thus opening up a path for them behind me!
The pagoda itself was breathtaking. After walking down about 120 stairs I found myself in a wide-open cavern with a giant pillar of stone in the middle. Behind the pillar was a grotto with several Buddhist altars where people were doing a number of things including praying, trying to catch ‘lucky water’, aka drops from stalactites, and stuffing money into fissures of the rocks (a sacrifice in hopes that wealth will surely be had this new year!). The intensity of the spirituality simply washed over everything in the cave. I was left without words as I took it all in.
While I was literally one of only four recognizable foreigners I saw the entire time (I only saw the other foreigners on my way back down the mountain) amongst the at least 100,000 people, I would surely visit it again during this time of the year. If I could, I would edit the guide books to say “do not visit the Perfume Pagoda for the first two months after Tet, unless you want a truly unforgettable cultural experience that you’ll probably keep with you for the rest of your life.” Furthermore, I am glad that I was able to share this experience with everyone at SEDA/Binh Minh because now I truly feel like I have been accepted by my co-workers!
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